Charted: WeChat’s astronomical growth abroad

A small error?
A small error?
Image: Reuters/Petar Kujundzic
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China’s all-encompassing app Weixin has been looking beyond its homeland in recent years—but no one knows how fast its overseas version, WeChat, is growing. Now data from a consulting firm Questmobile and Tencent’s annual reports might give us an idea.

Tencent rolled out WeChat in 2012 (pdf), a year after it released Weixin. Since then, WeChat has seen astronomical growth—while it only had 38 million monthly active users at the end of 2014, data suggests that number grew 446% to 169.6 million as of 2018.

That astonishing statistic doesn’t come from Tencent. Since 2013 (pdf, p.10), Tencent has only been sharing one number: the combined monthly active users (MAU) of both Weixin and WeChat. That same year, Tencent’s president Martin Lau gave a little more insight into the breakdown between Weixin and WeChat, stating that the total overseas registered user accounts had reached 70 million (link in Chinese). As a metric, though, that total registration number isn’t as helpful as MAU because the latter is a better reflection of the app’s stickiness (link in Chinese). Stickiness is especially important for social products like WeChat and Weixin because only active users will bring real money—for instance, when they use digital wallets and read ad-sponsored content.

Questmobile said it gets the data by tracking digital devices such as mobiles, desktops, and pads. WeChat declined to comment on the numbers, only saying that Tencent considers users registered with a mainland phone number are counted as Weixin users, those that registered with an overseas mobile or email accounts are WeChat users. In other words, it counts its users differently than Questmobile does.

The number has provided a good window into how well WeChat is marketing its product overseas, potentially competing with other social media products like Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp. Tencent said in its 2012 annual financial report that it’s “stepping up our marketing and investment to acquire users for WeChat.” It’s unclear how much Tencent has spent to make it happen. But it’s mostly worked—today, it’s almost inevitable for foreigners to sign up for WeChat if they need to stay in close contact with Chinese business partners, or for overseas Chinese to use the app to connect to their family in the mainland. For people with no immediate connection to China, the app is, predictably, less popular.

Weixin’s MAU growth rate has slowed down in recent years, suggesting there’s only so much money to be made and new users to be won on the mainland. That explains Tencent’s aggressive cash-burning strategy overseas. In its most recent effort to expand in Hong Kong, WeChat has been giving cash returns and discounts to people using the digital wallet in the app so that users will purchase products there. It has been a useful tactic (Quartz membership exclusive) in Weixin’s battle with financial giant Ant Financial’s Alipay over market shares in the mainland

But Tencent hasn’t always been consistent with its overseas expansion of WeChat, and it has had some setbacks. In 2015, for instance, Lau said Tencent’s taking a step back to “balance user experience and advertisers’ needs.” Back then, WeChat said its overseas market included Hong Kong and several Southeast Asia countries. “Right now, we do have presence in a number of different overseas markets … That is still growing sort of nicely, but not as fast as before,” Lau said. This would have explained WeChat’s negative MAU growth from 2014 to 2015.

Outside the mainland, China’s censorship is putting people off signing up for WeChat. Police have arrested people for writing comments that are critical of the Chinese government in private chats on Weixin. Although Tencent doesn’t seem to be bound by the same censorship scheme on WeChat as it does for Weixin, some might still think twice before they download WeChat.